By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER - A new partnership between Valley Health, local high schools and two colleges will help young students start the journey toward a variety of health care careers.
Area medical officials, school leaders and high school students met at Winchester Medical Center on Monday to learn more about the new Health Science Career Pathway Program. The partnership will not only provide students the opportunity to receive college credits dealing with health sciences, but it can also put high school graduates right into the Valley Health workforce.
In addition to outlining the potential impact of such a partnership, Valley Health also announced Monday that it will put $300,000 of start-up funding into the program.
Mark Merrill, Valley Health's president and CEO, said the money would help fund a portion of instructional personnel cost, which will be phased in over the first three school years of the program.
"This is truly one of the most exciting community partnerships that I've ever been a part of during my time with Valley Health," he said.
Some courses, including certified nursing assistant programs and a biomedical sciences class, will expand thanks to the partnership, which will benefit students at all high schools and technical centers in Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties, as well as the city of Winchester. Lord Fairfax Community College and Shenandoah University are also involved in the partnership.
All area high schools now will be able to have students apply for the new Health Science Summer Academy. Three students from each participating high school will be selected to not only attend the one-week academy, but also take the Orientation to Health Related Professions course at LFCC. Normally the course would last a semester, but the high school students will get the information, worth one credit, in four days.
The academy will feature CPR, information on specialties and skills, shadowing local health professionals and tours of area facilities.
Additionally, Frederick County Public Schools will now offer an Introduction to Health and Medical Sciences course at each high school, Shenandoah County Public Schools will add a new CNA program, and Warren County Public Schools will get to add a second teacher for an additional biomedical sciences class.
Elizabeth Savage, vice president of human resources at Valley Health, pointed out how helpful the partnership would be for students looking for work - both right out of high school or college.
"These partnerships provide a great opportunity to stay within the region and stay in Virginia," she said. "Health care is among the largest employers in the state."
Valley Health is the largest employer in the region, employing about 5,600. Savage said employee numbers grew by 6 percent in 2012.
There are currently more than 300 job vacancies in Valley Health, ranging from nurses and CNAs to physical therapists and radiology technicians.
"This is something that will create multiple pathways toward viable employment," she said. "It's a triple win for the education system, our children and Valley Health."
Cheryl Thompson-Stacey, president of LFCC, commented on the importance of rigor in the program, saying the difficulty of entering health care services wouldn't be lessened through the partnership.
"When you need health care services for yourself or a family member you want someone who's academically prepared ... who's dedicated, who's knowledgeable," she said. "That's the type of person we've got to have."
She said the courses geared toward national certifications and licensures are available, and are becoming more and more valuable in today's job market.
"We want to prepare [students] for these high demand, high paying jobs," she said.
Deanna Madagan, 18 and a senior at James Wood High School, has participated in clubs and summer camps dealing with entering the medical field. She is currently the president of her school's chapter of the Health Occupation Students of America.
"Because of all these things, I have the leadership skills to be a successful college student and, one day, a physical therapist," she said. "The school courses, clubs and other programs offered in our community play important roles in promoting medical careers."
She said if it weren't for classes taken during high school that were more focused on health care services, she might not have ever pursued a medical career.
Melody Sheppard, director of career and technical education for Warren County schools, knows how much the financial support is needed to expand current programs. Funds will help add a teacher for another biomedical sciences course, which has gained popularity after being offered for just one year.
"Last year, we had about 40 students sign up, but now we already have close to 70 students who want to take it, so I know we need the extra teacher," she said. "Anything we can to do reach and encourage more students is great."
Julie Shelhamer, health care sciences teacher at Triplett Technical Center in Shenandoah County, said she is excited to see a CNA program come to the school.
"Nursing school is so competitive now, and I know a lot of students are doing the program just so it will make their application stronger," she said. "This is something that our students want ... there are so many that have a general interest in helping people. This partnership will help them find a career in which they can do just that."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org